Franco-Italian war over migrants or just a brutal negociation strategy?

The clash between Italy and France has erupted over the migrant issue. A terrain on which Emmanuel Macron’s reaction has been seen by many as excessive, although Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been certainly very straightforward in her accusations about colonial policies implemented and run by France. But French nervousness has also been deciphered by the media from all over the continent with a growing irritation at how some economic games are being conducted. The struggle between liberal Macron and conservative Meloni agenda has, as we will see, many unspoken dimensions. 

The Meloni government instrumentally returns to the issue of immigration by shifting media attention and inciting racist and xenophobic sentiments. Meanwhile, the inhumane tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean continues with the criminalization of NGOs rescuing migrants at sea. 

This attitude faces a tough response from France, which in the end granted the humanitarian ship Ocean Viking entrance to the port of Toulon, frontally attacking the Meloni government for its decision not to authorize the landing. It was just the beginning of a diplomatic incident.

In the middle of November France asked “Europe to give its opinion very quickly on the developments that will follow” Italy’s refusal to accept the Ocean Viking and the migrants on board. The announcement came from government spokesman Olivier Véran during a media interview. Véran criticized Rome’s refusal, calling it “a unilateral, unacceptable, ineffective and unfair decision by the current Italian government, which demands European responses.” He added that France’s response was “the humanitarian one”.

French weak point 

However, this lesson on humanistic values comes from one of the powers that, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, cooperated in the dethronement of Gaddafi, who had proposed the creation of the pan-African dinar to price its oil. Hence he threatened the postcolonial relations running African politics. What’s more, this military involvement produced the migrant crisis that we have seen in recent years.  

All of this has opened the road from inner Africa leading through Mali to the Mediterranean, and made Libya arms deports, military infrastructure open and available to Jihadi factions. In the end it has given them freedom to run the most profitable trades: human beings, weapons, drugs.

All of this will be weaponized by Giorgia Meloni in her fight against illegal immigrantion. Three years ago she called out France for maintaining colonial relations with African countries through the CFA Franc, the currency it imposed on them some 80 years ago. Now she may use the same tactics – and, sadly, she will not be entirely wrong.

The whole idea of creating the currency was implemented by De Gaulle who, by granting false independence to African countries, actually kept them under French influence. The CFA Franc today denotes two separate currencies that are not interchangeable: the African Financial Community Franc (XOF) in the case of the UEMOA, issued by the BCEAO (Banque centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest) and the Central African Financial Cooperation Franc (XAF) for the CEMAC issued by the BEAC (Banque des États de l’Afrique centrale).

Though the CFA Franc is printed by the two respective central banks respectively, it is also true that in exchange for the fixed exchange rate regime, France demands that these nations pay into the coffers of the French treasury the equivalent of 50 percent of their exports.

As we can read in the analysis of this phenomenon under the guise that it is guarantor of the convertibility of the CFA franc first into French francs and then into euros, France in the legal personality of the Treasury demanded 100 percent until 1963, then 65 percent from 1963 and finally 50 percent from 2005 of the foreign exchange reserves of all those countries, which must concentrate all their reserves first with the Central Banks, which in turn transfer 50 percent of the reserves to the French Treasury (not the French Central Bank) at the Count du Operation (which are three, one for each currency zone) placed under state secrecy.

This means two things: that the French Treasury acts as a credit institution i.e., a bank that has that availability because of foreign currency, and that African countries experience their monetary independence under blackmail. 

Business behind the curtain

Meloni’s approach for some might not be driven only by her anti-immigrant position, which is broadly popular among Italians,  but also by resentment  towards France’s economic domination over Italy. Many prestigious Italian companies have fallen into the hands of large French groups, which have seized the right moment and deployed the necessary money to buy them. 

Now there is a process dealing with Vivendi, which is a French mass media holding company headquartered in Paris. Widely known as the owner of Gameloft, Groupe Canal+, Havas, Editis, Prisma Media, Vivendi Village and Dailymotion, the company is also active in television, film, video game, book publishing, print press, communication, tickets and video hosting services.

The main shareholder of Vivendi is Vincent Bolloré through his family group, stranded in Italy over another major stake, the telecommunication company Telecom, of which Vincent Bolloré acquired a 23.7 percent relative majority stake. These days Tim, a telecommunication company, is battling with Cassa Depositi e Prestiti to receive an offer to buy all of its network infrastructure, the company’s main asset that the French value at more than 30 billion euros. 

However, in the middle of the whole project, there came the Meloni government with an alternative plan that has put the two sides on edge. Undersecretary for the Presidency of the Council Alessio Butti would like Cassa Depositi e Prestiti to take charge by excluding an extra asset, a company called Opa on Tim and then proceeding to sell off assets not relevant to the network. 

As we can read in Italian media, Vivendi’s top executives have said they are willing to talk about it, but meetings have not yet taken place, partly because the government has not yet assigned delegations to those who will actually have to deal with this game. In an attempt to curb Butti’s advance, in fact, the French have begun making their case with Economic Development Minister Adolfo Urso, who may have a say in the matter.

It is clear that the game over the network is strategic for Italy, but it might not be swift to construct an operation that achieves this goal and at the same time allows the French to exit with honor – and more money in their pockets.

The next ongoing business that is underway regards the privatization of ITA, the Italian airline born from the ashes of Alitalia. Although debt-free and with few employees, it is failing to take off. The Draghi government initiated the privatization, and at the door came first Gianluigi Aponte’s Swiss group in tandem with Lufthansa, and then the Franco-Dutch Air France Klm along with Delta and the Certares fund. Certares-Air France won an exclusive negotiation, which, however, was not concluded and was reopened by newly appointed Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, who put the Germans back in the running. In all of this the Italian state has injected another 400 million euros into the company to ensure operations. However we have to still wait for the outcome of this duel, maybe the French business will be forced to retreat. 

French are also present in the Italian banking system. Agricole bank has aimed to get a significant stake bite in the Banco BPM group, which is present in the richest regions of Italy, Lombardy and Venetia. Seizing the opportunity, Agricole also attempted to take over the bancassurance business in Banco’s life insurance division, but was stymied by the board, which first promoted a tender offer and then decided that it was more appropriate to keep this lucrative business in-house. 

The issue is already at the center of the new government’s attention; it was newly appointed Defense Minister Guido Crosetto who already declared open hostility to the takeover during the election campaign with a tweet: “And while we waste time debating the mistakes of this or that politician, Credit Agricole continues its climb to become the second ‘Italian’ player in the banking market and control all asset management”. 

Insurance company Axa, on the other hand, recently became the second-largest shareholder in Monte dei Paschi di Siena, with which it has had a fruitful relationship for years involving the placement of policies through its subsidiaries.  

The infighting goes on 

Week ago Meloni called out France once more for its colonial policies, this time referring to Burkina Faso and the mining industry that is using children, and also the CFA agreement mentioned before. She said: “So the solution [to the migrant issue] is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe. The solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans who are exploiting it and let these people live on what they have”. 

Where is it going to lead? Nobody is sure right now. We can be certain that Meloni is going to weaponize the immigrant issue. The European Union is trying to mediate between France and Italy, because this kind of a split might push Meloni into the club of Jarosław Kaczyński and Orban. Maybe we are coming back to the relocation debate once more? Or is this fight just a smokescreen hiding some structural economic clashes between France and Italy? We will see this winter. 

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